Almost exactly a year ago, I sat in Stirling train station on a brief break between meetings in Dundee and Glasgow, perched on a freezing metal bench and balancing my laptop, a headset, my mobile phone, and a cup of soup as I attempted to join a meeting of the Sustainable Business Travel working group. The topic? How we could encourage University of Glasgow colleagues to use Zoom as an alternative to in-person meetings.
The world has changed immeasurably since then. Our discussions about guides to online meeting etiquette quickly became redundant as the entire country made the switch in a matter of weeks. But the underlying motivation – the need to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avoid catastrophic climate change – remains. Despite the global shutdown caused by the pandemic, emissions fell by only 6% in 2020. Unless we make some major changes, we’re still on course for a climate future that we’re not sure human society can survive, within just a few generations.
However, as David Wallace-Wells puts it, “That we know climate change is our doing should be a comfort, not a cause for despair”. We know what we need to do, we know how fast we need to do it, and every institution and every individual has a role to play. That’s why a group of us from across the University came together to look at how we travel for work, and how we can minimise our contribution to emissions whilst maximising the contribution we make to society through teaching and research.
The guidance released this week is the first step on that route, which in turn is part of the University’s longer journey towards carbon neutrality by 2030. It sets out the rationale for focusing on travel (22% of the University’s total carbon footprint) and flights in particular (more than 98% of that travel footprint), and a commitment to reduce emissions by 7.5% year on year from 2018-2019 to 2029-2030.
To get there, it recommends four main actions:
- Avoid travelling where possible, by using the virtual collaboration methods we’ve unexpectedly become experts in
- Identify opportunities to fund and use virtual working as part of grants, especially supporting partner organisations without such facilities (for instance, in the Global South)
- Choose public transport where travel is required, with a specific expectation that domestic flights within the UK will only be taken where there is specific justification as agreed with one’s line manager
- Maximise the value of any given journey – for instance by combining a conference with a study visit
Throughout, we have tried to ensure that the guidance is underpinned by considerations of equity. Across academia, a small proportion of individuals (usually the most senior) account for most emissions, yet the benefits of travel can be much greater for those at the earlier stages of their careers. We also recognise that for some, more carbon-intensive modes of travel are essential for ensuring they can participate in University life and develop their careers to the full; for instance, those with caring responsibilities or disabilities. This is reflected in the decision aid found at the end of the guidance, which can be used to inform decisions about travelling that incorporate individual circumstances and the value of any given opportunity.
The consultation on the Glasgow Green strategy showed an enormous appetite from staff and students for action and leadership on the climate emergency, including changing the way we travel. We hope the guidance meets those high expectations, and we look forward to continuing the conversation about how it can be improved and strengthened as time goes on.
Although travelling for work may still seem like a long way off – that cold day in Stirling feels like a lifetime ago – we need to make sure that the habits we resume are ones that reflect our values, and our commitment to a fair and liveable future free from the threat of climate breakdown.
This article post originally was published March 3rd 2021, on the MRC/CSO SOCIAL AND PUBLIC HEALTH SCIENCES UNIT Improving Health blog .